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Shingles: Symptoms, Treatment and Frequently Asked Questions

Posted October 17, 2022 by Darla Hadden, PA-C

Shingles vaccine

For many of us, chickenpox is a distant memory. But, unfortunately, this childhood illness can come back to haunt us later in life in the form of shingles.

The same virus that causes chickenpox can cause shingles, a viral infection to the nerves that results in a painful rash. About 1 in 3 people will get shingles, according to the National Institutes of Health.

After someone has been infected with chickenpox, the virus enters their nervous system and lies inactive. Eventually, it can reactivate as shingles. Most people only get shingles once and the majority of cases last three to five weeks.

Shingles age range

A common misconception is that shingles is associated with old age. While shingles is more common in older adults, especially after age 50, and in people who have weakened immune systems, anyone who previously had chickenpox can get shingles. While rare, children and young adults can get shingles, especially if they had the chicken pox before age one or if their mother had chicken pox in the late stages of pregnancy. Those who had the chicken pox vaccine can still get shingles, though this is an even rarer occurrence.

Summa Health answers your top questions about shingles, common symptoms, risk factors and treatment so if you do develop the disease, you can find fast relief. Although there is no cure, prompt treatment can shorten the duration of the disease and reduce your risk for complications.

What are symptoms of shingles?

Pain is typically the first symptom of shingles and it can be intense for some people. In many cases, the shingles rash develops as a stripe of blisters that wraps around one side of the torso and usually clears in seven to 10 days.

Common shingles symptoms include:

  • Shooting pain, burning, numbness or tingling
  • Itching
  • A red rash that appears a few days after the pain on one side of the body, usually on the face, waist, back or chest.
  • Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
  • Fever and chills
  • Headache
  • Upset stomach

Is shingles contagious?

You cannot get shingles from someone who has shingles, but you can get chickenpox from someone who has shingles if you have never had chickenpox before or haven’t received the chickenpox vaccine.

Until your shingles blisters scab over, you are contagious and can pass the virus through direct contact with the open sores. So, it’s important to keep the rash covered and wash your hands often to prevent spreading the virus.

While contagious, it’s best to avoid physical contact with anyone who hasn't yet had chickenpox, especially people with weakened immune systems, those who are pregnant and newborns.

How is shingles treated?

There is no cure for shingles, but early diagnosis and treatment is crucial to help shorten the infection and reduce the risk of complications. If you suspect shingles, contact your primary care provider right away.

Your provider most likely will diagnose shingles based on examining your rash and blisters, and reviewing your medical history. Treatment with antiviral drugs can speed healing while reducing your risk of complications. These medicines are most effective if you start taking them as soon as possible after the rash appears. Prescription pain medications may be prescribed to help provide relief from severe pain.

In addition, taking a lukewarm oatmeal bath, using cool compresses or applying calamine lotion on your blisters can help relieve itching and pain.

Are there complications from shingles?

In rare cases, shingles can lead to serious complications. The most common complication from shingles is called postherpetic neuralgia, a condition that causes continued pain for months or even years after the blisters have cleared. The pain can be so severe and debilitating that it interferes with daily life.

Shingles also can lead to other serious complications if it develops around the eyes or ears, including blindness, hearing problems, bacterial skin infections, pneumonia or brain inflammation, known as encephalitis.

Is there a shingles vaccine for prevention?

Yes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people over the age of 50 receive two doses of Shingrix (recombinant zoster vaccine), with two to six months between doses. Those who have had shingles in the past are also recommended to get the vaccine to help prevent another occurrence of the disease in the future.

Studies suggest it offers up to 90 percent protection against shingles for more than five years. While the shingles vaccine doesn't guarantee that you won't get the disease, it will likely reduce the severity and risk of serious complications.

If you’re over the age of 50, talk to your primary care provider about getting the shingles vaccine.

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